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Dear Artisan Toast Craze: Please Don't Come to Houston

Toast is the new black.
Toast is the new black.
Photo from thinkstock.com

Houston tends to be a little late to the game, food-trend-wise.

The whole food truck-trend didn't really take off here until 2011, long after the gourmet meal on wheels had become popular in places like Los Angeles and New York. We're still going gaga over cupcakes, a trend that felt played out even in St. Louis when I moved away from there last year. Gourmet doughnuts, which have been filling bakery cases in Seattle, Portland, New York and San Francisco for some time now, are finally beginning to pop up here in H-Town.

And that's okay. We know that trends will eventually make it to our muggy little corner of the world, and we're great at building up excitement in anticipation (remember the whole cronut thing?).

But I have a request for the latest and weirdest in food trends, expensive artisan toast. Please, for the love of all that is good and hearty, do not come to Houston.

Before you get all defensive and start clamoring for the slightly burned bread that's sweeping the rest of the nation, let's talk a little about this artisan toast thing, shall we?

The first true investigation of the toast craze came courtesy of John Gravois with the Pacific Standard, a magazine based in Santa Barbara. After noticing $3-per-slice toast at San Francisco coffee shop the Red Door and, later, a whole toast menu at Acre Coffee in nearby Petaluma, Gravois set out to determine which asshole had started "the latest artisanal food craze."

He writes:

I had two reactions to this: First, of course, I rolled my eyes. How silly; how twee; how perfectly San Francisco, this toast. And second, despite myself, I felt a little thrill of discovery. How many weeks would it be, I wondered, before artisanal toast made it to Brooklyn, or Chicago, or Los Angeles? How long before an article appears in Slate telling people all across America that they're making toast all wrong? How long before the backlash sets in?

This was back in January, back before the hipsters in Portland and Brooklyn caught on to the toast trend. Gravois's search for an origin story led him to a small coffee shop about three blocks from the Pacific Ocean in San Francisco. It was called Trouble. And, as he explains in the story (which I highly recommend you read), the toast at Trouble wasn't about creating a hipster food furor. It was about nostalgia and community and a sense of self.

I'm not going to spoil the story for you, but the takeaway is that the toast at Trouble means something. The toast at New York City's The Peacock -- which features a toast menu with dishes up to $16 -- is a way for chefs to be trendy and show off their mad pickling skills.

Of course, this whole toast thing isn't exactly new. Toast has been on restaurant menus as long as toasters have been available. Dine at any greasy spoon, and there will be toast with your eggs and bacon. "Texas Toast" is a beast all its own, often accompanying chicken-fried steak or barbecue. What's new is the trendiness -- and the price.

In an op-ed for Seattle newspaper The Stranger, Bethany Jean Clement writes, "Part of the moral outrage here is economic: Toast is meant to be a thrifty food, meant to make homespun, happy use of otherwise less-than-optimally-fresh bread."

Clement goes on to argue that toast has rustic connotations. It's often one of the first things a person learns how to make. It's something you make at home for a snack. It's something your mom made for you when you were a kid. Plus, she says, "even a completely incompetent cook" can make toast.

This story continues on the next page.  

How much would you pay for the perfect toast?
How much would you pay for the perfect toast?
Photo from the National Cancer Institute

Food trends, like any other trends, have origin stories and they have impetuses. The Hawaiian luau craze of the late 1940s and early 1950s (pineapple ham, tiki cocktails, SPAM) was spawned by the end of WWII and the soldiers returning home from stations in Polynesia. In the 1960s, fondue was a representation of a desire for a cosmopolitan lifestyle. After the stock market crash in 1987, people sought down-home comfort food more than haute cuisine as a means to feel safe and secure. Similarly, cupcakes exploded onto the scene in a big way after September 11, possibly because Americans sought comfortable, fun food that reminded them of their less complicated childhoods.

Of course, this is all speculation. Toast may not be a backlash against molecular gastronomy, complicated tasting menus and the birth of the "foodie." Perhaps, as the owner of Trouble posits, people just like toast. And there's nothing wrong with that.

There's nothing wrong with all the food trucks that opened in Houston either. Nor is it a problem that kale continues to pop up on menus and that cupcakes are still chic here. But I just can't see Houston embracing artisanal toast in the way other large cities have.

Houston -- for all its eccentricities, diversity and culture -- is a simple place. We like good, solid food. Soul food. An excellent burger. A great platter of enchiladas. We are not the type to shell out big bucks on a slice of perfectly browned bread with a delicate smear of house-made apricot-thyme butter.

If I want toast, I'm inclined to make it myself and perhaps top it with some jam from Revival Market or even some cream cheese and pineapple habanero sauce from Bravado Spice. And if I want someone to serve me toast so I can munch on it in protest against the fetishization of food, I'll go to Avalon Diner, where a side of white, wheat, rye or cinnamon toast -- dry or buttered -- is still just $1.95.


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